2016 NCAA Division 2 Football Playoff Semifinal Predictions
The 2016 NCAA Division 2 Football Playoffs are down to the final four teams. Northwest Missouri State, Shepherd, North Alabama, and Ferris State are the four teams standing. Both games will be played on Saturday, December 10 to determine the National Championship participants and can be seen on ESPN3. An updated bracket can be found here.
The NCAA reseeded the teams after the quarterfinals to rank the teams one through four. The two higher seeded teams will play at home for the semifinal round. The rankings are below.
North Alabama has played two games in the Division 2 Playoffs after getting a bye in the first round and they have two big wins. They defeated UNC Pembroke 41-17 in the second round after they pulled away with the final 31 points of the game. Jacob Tucker had 337 total yards and 4 touchdowns in the win. Their quarterfinal game was far easier as they held North Greenville to 181 yards of offense and forced 5 turnovers. Tucker had 296 total yards and 3 touchdowns on offense in the 38-0 win.
Shepherd has played three games and the offense has been strong in each one. In the first round, they defeated Assumption 48-31 at home after 317 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions from JeffZiemba. In the second round game at LIU Post, Shepherd won 40-21 after keeping the Pioneers at bay for most of the game. Ziemba threw for 375 yards with 4 touchdowns (no picks) while BrandonHlavach had 177 yards and 2 touchdowns rushing.
Shepherd’s quarterfinal game was also on the road and they were close to being run out of the building. They trailed 17-0 less than midway through the first quarter, but responded with 21 straight points. They fell behind again at 30-21, but scored another 20 straight points to win 41-30. Ziemba threw for 200 yards with 3 touchdowns (1 pick) while Hlavach ran for 159 yards and a touchdown.
There are no surprises here. North Alabama will be led by Tucker on offense and their defense. Shepherd will be led by Ziemba passing and Hlavach running the ball. Ziemba did take a big hit late in the game so keep an eye on him to see how he plays early on. Shepherd averages 40.6 points and 328.3 passing yards per game while North Alabama allows 13.4 points 186.9 yards passing per game. That will be the matchup to watch.
Shepherd’s defense allows 18.6 points and 295.1 yards per game, but those numbers have been higher in the playoffs. The Rams have allowed 27.3 points and 340 yards per game in their three playoff contests. North Alabama should have success with Tucker.
This is such an intriguing game. Has North Alabama faced an offense like this since their season opener against FCS Jacksonville State? Can Shepherd get the defensive stops they need to win this game? Remember, Shepherd made the National Championship last year though it did not end very well for them.
We like Shepherd, with that playoff experience, to win a close game over North Alabama. The Rams win 34-31 to play in their second straight national championship.
#4 Ferris State (12-2) at #1 Northwest Missouri State (13-0)
Game Time: 3:30 PM Eastern
Ferris State started the first round at home against Midwestern State. They ran wild with 362 yards and 6 touchdowns on the ground (5 by Trevor Bermingham alone) in their 65-34 win. In the second round, it was Bermingham again leading the way with 392 yards and 2 touchdowns passing along with 3 rushing touchdowns to a 38-17 win. In the quarterfinal, Ferris State defeated rival Grand Valley State on the road 47-32. Once again, Bermingham had a big day with 4 rushing touchdowns.
Northwest Missouri State had a bye in the first round and easily won their second round game at home against Emporia State. They allowed negative 30 yards rushing that day in their 44-13 win. Their quarterfinal matchup was against run happy Harding and the Bearcats handled that quite well. Harding came into the game averaging 381.5 yards per game, but the Bearcats held them to 119 yards on 43 carries. Harding attempted only 6 passes all game, completed zero of those, and were picked off twice.
Ferris State will easily be the most challenging opponent Northwest Missouri State has faced in the playoffs. The Bulldogs average 493.3 yards per game (263.9 rushing and 229.4 passing) and put up 38.8 points per game. Their lowest output of the season was 410 yards against Findlay (242 yards rushing and 168 yards passing) when they won 20-17. Northwest Missouri State highest total yards allowed were 360 to Northeastern State. The Bearcats easily won 74-29 when they had 662 yards of offense themselves.
The Bearcats will be led by Kyle Zimmerman, who has 3,582 yards (69%) with 36 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions through the air. Phil Jackson (800 yards and 8 touchdowns) and Cameron Wilcox (583 yards and 11 touchdowns) will lead the rushing attack. Zimmerman also has 263 yards and 7 touchdowns rushing this year.
The Bearcats will focus on stopping the run. They allow 68.2 yards per game on the ground. The Bulldogs average 263.9 yards per game on the ground and have no shortage of options. Quarterback ReggieBell has 1,156 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing (also 5 fumbles lost), Jahaan Brown has 952 yards and 7 touchdowns, and Bermingham has 405 yards and 18 touchdowns are all a threat.
We like Northwest Missouri State to win this game. If they can stop the run, they can feast on the Ferris State passing offense. However, if Ferris State can get the rushing attack going, this game may be close. The Bearcats win this game 31-17 and play for their third national championship in the past four seasons.
Check back next week for a preview of the 2016 Division 2 National Championship.
Shepherd won their opening round game over Assumption 48-31 by building a solid halftime lead of 28-16. They did the same thing in round 2 against LIU Post (26-7 at half), but their offense was unstoppable with 591 yards (375 passing and 216 rushing). Jeff Ziemba threw for all 375 yards with 4 touchdowns and no picks while BrandonHlavach had 177 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground.
California had a bye in the first round and they even fell behind 17-0 to Indiana (PA) after 7 seconds into the second quarter. That was no problem as they outscored the Hawks 44-6 the rest of the game to win 44-23. Michael Keir threw for 274 yards and 4 touchdowns with no picks to lead the Vulcans.
Both teams have potent offenses with California averaging 51.4 points and 458.5 yards per game while Shepherd averages 40.6 points and 480.4 yards per game. Both defenses give up less than 300 yards and 20 points per game.
We know that Shepherd’s chances go through quarterback Jeff Ziemba. He has only five interceptions on the season with 68.3% completions and when he is passing the ball well, the offense is very difficult to stop. Consider that Ziemba’s worst game last year was the National Championship against Northwest Missouri State. He played hurt, the Bearcats zoned in on him, and he just could not get much going. He finished 11 of 16 for 136 yards with a touchdown and a pick. In addition, if Brandon Hlavach can have another big rushing game, the offense will probably have 40+ points.
California will be led by quarterback Michael Keir. Keir has 2,953 yards (65.6%) with 39 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this year. The offense was not overwhelming with 364 total yards, but they did not turn the ball over and converted all six of their red zone attempts against Indiana (PA).
This should be a good game and we will go with Shepherd on the strength of Ziemba and the team’s playoff experience. We will take the Rams to win 34-30.
Super Regional Two (North Alabama)
#6 North Greenville (9-4) at #1 North Alabama (9-1)
Game Time: 1 PM Eastern
North Greenville opened the playoffs with an impressive 27-13 win over Florida Tech on the road. They scored 24 points in the final 30 minutes and forced three interceptions. In round 2, the Crusaders had a 28 point first quarter and cruised to a 45-26 win over Tuskegee. Will Hunter threw for 272 yards with 3 touchdowns (1 pick) and the offense had 239 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground.
North Alabama had a bye in round one and last week took care of UNC Pembroke 41-17 at home. UNA actually trailed 17-10 midway through the second quarter after Pembroke defense recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. Jacob Tucker had 284 yards with 2 touchdowns and a pick along with 53 yards rushing and two touchdowns to lead the offense while DreHall had 9 catches for 135 yards and a score.
This is a rematch of the October 22nd game that North Alabama won 52-21. That game was close at halftime with UNA holding a 24-14 lead. Tucker ended up having a field day with 510 yards of total offense and 5 touchdowns. Dre Hall had 10 catches for 162 yards and a score as well.
North Alabama has both the better offense and defense. The questions are can Greenville play defense well enough and can the offense score enough points? That is a tough task and we like North Alabama to win this game 45-28.
Super Regional Three (Northwest Missouri State)
#3 Harding (13-0) at #1 Northwest Missouri State (12-0)
Game Time: 2 PM Eastern
Harding opened the playoffs with a 48-31 over Central Missouri thanks to 355 rushing yards as a team. Park Parish accounted for 291 yards of total offense with 3 touchdowns. They needed overtime in the second round to defeat Sioux Falls 27-24. Harding erased a 10 point deficit in the final 5 minutes.
Northwest Missouri State had a bye in the first round and then easily dispatched Emporia State 44-13 in the second round. They held Emporia State to -30 yards rushing and gave up 327 yards through the air.
This game will come down to the Bearcats rush defense against Harding’s vaunted rush offense. Harding averages 381.5 yards per game on the ground while Northwest Missouri State allows only 63.9 yards per game. Only once all year have the Bearcats allowed more than 100 yards rushing and that came against Lindenwood. The Bearcats won that game 47-12.
It is not hard to envision how this will go. The Bearcats will load up the box to stop the run and it will force Harding to pass the ball. Harding has a grand total of 828 yards passing this year so it could be a disaster of a game if they have to throw a lot. Harding may hit 100 yards on the ground, but that will not be enough. The Harding defense will need to limit the Bearcats on offense and create turnovers resulting in short fields. The Bearcats have just 11 turnovers all season (7 lost fumbles and 4 interceptions).
We like Northwest Missouri State to win this contest rather easily. The Bearcats maul Harding 38-7 at home.
Super Regional Four (Grand Valley State)
#2 Ferris State (11-2) at #1 Grand Valley State (12-0)
Game Time: 1 PM Eastern
Ferris State opened the playoffs with a resounding 65-34 win over Midwestern State. Trevor Bermingham had 252 yards of total offense with five rushing touchdowns and there were two defensive interceptions returned for touchdowns as well. Round two was a more pedestrian game in a 38-17 victory. Colorado Mines was still within a touchdown late in the 3rd quarter, but a passing and rushing touchdown from Bermingham (392 yards passing, 44 yards rushing, and five total touchdowns) made it a flattering scoreline in the end.
Grand Valley State had a bye the opening round and then blew the doors off Texas A&M-Commerce in the second half to win 55-32 in the second round. The offense had 598 yards with 311 yards passing from Bart Williams (4 touchdowns and 1 pick) and 217 yards rushing by Marty Carter (1 touchdown).
Here we have yet another regular season rematch occurring in the playoffs. These two teams met on October 8 at Grand Valley State and the outcome was 35-23 in favor of GVSU. The Lakers took a 28-6 lead into halftime while Ferris State closed the deficit to 28-23 midway through the fourth quarter. A Williams to Nick Dodson 39 yard touchdown pass iced the game.
In that game, Ferris State dominated offensively. They had 29 first downs (21 for GVSU), 201 yards rushing (118 for GVSU), and 369 yards passing (232 for GVSU). Ferris State had five turnovers to 3 for the Lakers. It was the missed opportunities for Ferris State that proved to be the difference.
Ferris State missed a field goal, had two drives end inside the GVSU red zone (one due to a lost fumble and the other due to a turnover on downs), and had an interception result in a defensive touchdown for Grand Valley State.
Reggie Bell was at quarterback for Ferris State that day and he threw for 343 yards with 2 touchdowns, rushed for 140 yards, but also had 2 interceptions and 2 lost fumbles. Bell has been hampered by injuries, which has led to Bermingham taking over. No matter who is playing at quarterback, if Ferris State commits five turnovers again then it may be another bitter loss to their instate rival.
This could be a shootout. Yes the defenses are good, but there are playmakers on both offenses. Bell, Bermingham, or even JahaanBrown (866 rushing yards with 7 touchdown) for Ferris State will be up against Bart Williams (3,024 yards passing with 30 touchdowns and 10 picks) and running back Marty Carter (1,807 yards with 19 touchdowns).
We like Ferris State to get revenge and win over their Michigan rivals. The Bulldogs will not turn the ball over as much and the offense will racking up yardage. In a close game, Ferris State wins 45-42.
The four predicted winners are Shepherd, North Alabama, Northwest Missouri State, and Ferris State.
Check back next week for the semifinal predictions for the 2016 NCAA Division 2 Football Playoffs.
2016 NCAA Division 2 Football Playoffs Round 1 Predictions
The 2016 Division 2 Playoffs will begin on Saturday, November 19 with 12 games. The bracket can be found here and the top four teams California (PA), Northwestern Missouri State, North Alabama, and Grand Valley State received a bye to the second round.
This is an offensive versus defensive battle. Indiana averages 47 points per game while Fairmont State gives up 15.1 points per game. Indiana has three rushers with at least 575 yards in Samir Bullock (892 yards), Lenny Williams Jr. (594), and Chris Temple (658). Fairmont is led by quarterback Cooper Hibbs (2,855 yards with 18 touchdowns), but he is turnover prone with 12 picks on the season.
We will take the offense and Indiana (PA) to win this battle 24-20. They will use their run game to pound Fairmont and if they can force an interception or two from Hibbs, they will have a great chance to win. The winner of this contest will face #1 California (PA) in the second round.
#7 Winston-Salem (9-2) at #2 LIU Post (11-0)
Game Time: 12 PM Eastern
Winston-Salem started 1-2, but has reeled of 8 wins in a row. LIU Post had the pleasure of defeating fellow playoff team Assumption twice during the year with latter coming in the Northeast-10 Conference Championship game.
This has a defensive feel to it because both teams allow 340 yards per game and less than 20 points per game. Interestingly, Winston-Salem is undefeated away from home (5-0). Despite that we will go with LIU-Post to win 21-17. The winner of this game will face either Assumption or Shepherd in Round 2.
#6 Assumption (9-2) at #3 Shepherd (10-0)
Game Time: 12 PM Eastern
Shepherd returns to the Division 2 Playoffs coming off their crushing loss last year in the National Championship against Northwest Missouri State. Both teams feature powerful offenses and strong defenses. Assumption averages 37.7 points per game and give up only 284.6 yards and 17.2 points per game. Shepherd scores 39.9 points per game and allow only 281.5 yards and 16 points per game.
This game will come down to quarterback play and that is why we will go with Shepherd to win 28-14. Shepherd quarterback JeffZiemba has thrown for 2,623 yards (68.4% completions) with 20 touchdowns against only 3 interceptions this year. Assumption quarterback Marc Monks as thrown for 2,616 yards and 24 touchdowns, but is far less accurate at 58.1% and has thrown 10 interceptions. The winner of this game will play either Winston-Salem or LIU-Post.
Super Regional Two (North Alabama)
#5 UNC Pembroke (9-1) at #4 Valdosta State (8-2)
Game Time: 1 PM Eastern
Both opponents should be used to playing tough opponents on the road this year. Pembroke faced Winston-Salem (20-17 win) and Tuskegee (21-16 loss) during the regular season. Valdosta State played North Alabama (44-19 loss) and Florida Tech (38-20 loss) away, but they get the home draw this time around.
This looks like a pretty even matchup between the schools. Neither team is overwhelming on offense or defense, but it may come down to 3rd down conversions. Valdosta State has allowed only 24% (34 of 141) on third down to their opponents while Pembroke has allowed 31.6% (43 of 138). Both offenses are converting over 40% of their 3rd downs.
We will go with UNC Pembroke to win 27-24 on the road. They have shown the ability to play well on the road, but this game could really go either way. The winner of this game gets #1 North Alabama in Round 2.
#7 Tuskegee (8-2) at #2 Newberry (10-1)
Game Time: 1 PM Eastern
Tuskegee had a really good regular season going 8-2 with wins over FCS Florida A&M and fellow playoff participant UNC Pembroke. Newberry started with a loss to Florida Tech at home 42-28, but won 10 straight to close out the year.
Tuskegee will rely on their defense to win this game (they allow only 16.9 points and 255 yards per game). Only once did they allow more than 20 points and that was the regular season finale to Virginia State when they lost 45-35. If this is a shootout, Tuskegee may be in trouble. Newberry’s offense puts up 36.6 points and 464 yards per game.
We are going to go with Tuskegee to pull the upset here 20-13. The defense will be stingy enough to keep the Newberry offense in check. Last year, Tuskegee defeated both Catawba and North Alabama on the road in the playoffs. The winner of this game will play the winner of North Greenville and Florida Tech.
#6 North Greenville (7-4) at #3 Florida Tech (8-2)
Game Time: 12 PM Eastern
North Greenville’s four losses came to some pretty good teams: Newberry (29-28), UNC Pembroke (49-35), FCS Citadel (38-14), and North Alabama (52-21). They went 3-3 on the road, but all of those losses were by double digits.
Florida Tech had wins over Newberry (42-28), FCS Presbyterian (28-7), and Valdosta State (38-20). They did avoid North Alabama due to the game being cancelled, but may end up facing them should they make the Quarterfinals.
We are going to take Florida Tech to win this game 38-21. They have the better defense and they should be able to force stops against North Greenville. The winner of this game will play the winner of the Tuskegee and Newberry game.
Super Regional Three (Northwest Missouri State)
#5 Minnesota-Duluth (10-1) at #4 Emporia State (10-1)
Game Time: 2 PM Eastern
Duluth started with a close 42-38 loss at Southwest Minnesota State and then reeled off 10 straight wins with their high-powered offense. It was the same story for Emporia State as they lost the opener to Northwest Missouri State 41-14.
Minnesota-Duluth has the better offense at 46.8 points and 542.7 points per game, but Emporia State has the better defense giving up 22.3 points (over 8 points less than Duluth’s defense). This game feels like it will a high scoring affair and it may come down to which defense can force a turnover or make a stop.
We will go with Minnesota-Duluth to win 45-42. Whichever team ends up winning this game gets the arduous task of facing Northwest Missouri State.
#7 Azusa Pacific (9-2) at #2 Sioux Falls (11-0)
Game Time: 1 PM Eastern
Azusa Pacific owns two losses to fellow playoff teams Colorado Mines (27-23) and Colorado Mesa (33-24) with both games on the road. Sioux Falls was fortunate they did not face Minnesota-Duluth in conference play, but that would have been a wonderful game. They won most of their games comfortably with only 1 game decided by less than 10 points.
Azusa Pacific has a good offense putting up 37.6 points and 396.2 yards per game. Sioux Falls puts up 40.8 points and 532 yards of offense per game. The defensive tilt goes to Azusa at 14.4 points and 320 yards per game compared to 18.8 points and 358.5 yards per game for Sioux Falls.
We are going to take Sioux Falls to win this contest on the strength of Max Mickey’s legs. He has rushed for 1,550 yards and 16 touchdowns, but be weary of quarterback Luke Papilion. He has 906 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns to go along with 2,022 yards passing with 15 touchdowns. He does have 12 interceptions, but the better the run game is, the less likely they are to throw. Sioux Falls wins this 41-28. The winner of this game will face either Central Missouri or Harding.
#6 Central Missouri (9-2) at #3 Harding (11-0)
Game Time: 2 PM Eastern
Central Missouri’s two losses this season came to fellow playoff teams. They lost at home to Emporia State 37-31 in double overtime and they were drubbed the following week by Northwest Missouri State 42-17. Harding had little trouble with their opponents with only 1 game decided by a touchdown or less.
Harding sports one of the better defense in Division 2 allowing only 11.2 points per game and 227.8 yards per contest. They give up just 69.7 rushing yards per game, which may spell trouble for Central Missouri because they average 169.1 yards per game on the ground.
Harding is going to try and shorten the game with their own ground attack. They have 7 different rushers with 300 yards or more on the season and go to the passing game only as a last resort. They have just 54 passing attempts on the year for 584 yards and 4 touchdowns. They average 388.5 yards per game on the ground while Central Missouri gives up 138.5 per game.
This game will come down to how well Harding runs the ball. If they get the run game going then it will be game over for Central Missouri. However, if Central Missouri can stop the run and obvious passing situations they have a chance. We will take Harding in this spot 28-21. The winner of this game faces either Asuza Pacific or Sioux Falls.
Super Regional Four (Grand Valley State)
#5 Colorado Mesa (9-2) at #4 Texas A&M-Commerce (9-1)
Game Time: 3 PM Eastern
Colorado Mesa has some big wins this year: Colorado Mines (41-40 in 2 overtimes), Colorado State-Pueblo (20-19), and Azusa Pacific (33-24). They also own two losses to Black Hill State (48-34) and Dixie State (38-31) with both of those teams finishing above .500.
Texas A&M-Commerce’s lone loss was a 26-25 heartbreaker to Midwestern State when they blew a 12 point lead in the final 3:30 and gave up the game winning touchdown with 28 seconds left.
As with most 4-5 matchups, this is a toss up. Both teams put up over 40 points a game, but defense is where the advantage is for Commerce. Mesa gives up 30.7 points per game and 463.3 yards per game while Commerce allows only 18.2 points and 381.1 yards per game. For that reason, we are going with Commerce to take this game 34-21. The winner of this game will play #1 Grand Valley State in Round 2.
#7 Midwestern State (8-2) at #2 Ferris State (9-2)
Game Time: 12 PM Eastern
Midwestern State has that big win over Texas A&M-Commerce, but also lost to West Texas A&M (35-27) and Eastern New Mexico (30-28). They will also be traveling all the way to Michigan for this contest.
Ferris State has two losses to two very good teams. They lost at home to playoff snub Ashland 39-31 and to top regional seed Grand Valley State 35-23 on the road. The duo of quarterback Reggie Bell (1,081 yards and 15 touchdowns) and running Jahaan Brown (824 yards and 7 touchdowns) will lead the ground game. Bell also has 2,046 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions through the air.
We will take Ferris State to win this game 31-21 due to that rushing attack. Midwestern State allows 200 yards per game on the ground while Ferris State averages 267.4 yards per game rushing on offense. That is a recipe for success for Ferris State. The winner of this game will play either Colorado Mines or Southwest Baptist in Round 2.
#6 Colorado Mines (9-2) at #3 Southwest Baptist (10-1)
Game Time: 2 PM Eastern
Colorado Mines had back-to-back losses against Colorado Mesa (41-40 in double overtime) and Western State (45-31) before winning their final 7 games. Southwest Baptist’s lone blemish was a 26-16 loss at home to Truman State. Outside of that game, they were pretty dominant to end the season.
This will probably a high-scoring game because both teams have good offenses and mediocre defenses. As such, it makes it difficult to pick a winner, but we will go with Colorado Mines to win 52-48 though the outcome could easily flip. The winner of this game will play either Midwestern State or Ferris State.
Check back next week for the NCAA Division 2 Football Playoff Predictions for Round 2.
The success started under Jerry Kill has been continued by Dave Doeren (2011 and 2012) and continued under Rod Carey who will be in his third season in 2015. The last five years have been impressive for North Illinois; five straight MAC Championship appearances, three MAC Championships, and five straight seasons with at least 11 wins.
2014 saw a precipitous drop in points per game by the offense. After averaging at least 38 points per game each season between 2010 and 2013, 2014 saw only 31.5 points per game and that was with 9 starters returning. In 2015, the offense loses the top rusher (Cameron Stingily – 971 yards and 14 touchdowns) as well as their top receiver (Da’Ron Brown – 68 catches for 1,065 yards and 6 touchdowns). Offsetting those losses are the return of the now experienced quarterback in Drew Hare. Hare threw for 2,322 yards (59.5%) with 18 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He also was the team’s second leading rusher with 900 yards and 8 touchdowns. The Huskies also return the #2 running back as well as they #2, #3, and #4 receivers from 2014. The offense should continue to plug along.
Defensively, the Huskies see 8 starters return from a unit that gave up 25.6 points per game in 2014. That number could be 7 depending on what happens to linebacker Rasheen Lemon, who was suspended in April for domestic battery. The loss of Lemon would hurt at LB, but the defensive line and secondary both return 3 starters each, which should help NIU improve on their numbers from 2014 (392 total yards per game, 163 rushing yards per game, and 229 passing yards per game).
NIU has a tough out of conference slate that segues into the start of conference play. NIU faces Ohio State on the road September 19, Boston College on the road September 26, and Central Michigan on the road October 3. They draw Miami (OH) (away), Buffalo (away), and Ohio (home) from the East, which is manageable. Their two toughest MAC West foes are Toledo (away on Nov. 3) and Western Michigan (home on Nov. 18). The game against Toledo will probably decide the winner of the MAC West.
Another double-digit win total is not out of reach for Northern Illinois.
2. Toledo Rockets
Matt Campbell has done well at Toledo in his first three seasons. He has guided the Rockets to a winning record all three years and made two bowl appearances (1-1 record in those 2 games). Now is the time for him to put Toledo back in the MAC Championship game for the first time since 2004.
The offense has only 5 returning starters and have to replace the entire offensive line. That means the Rockets will lean heavily on the skill position players early on including the electric Kareem Hunt at running back. He ran for 1,631 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging an astounding 8 yard per carry in 2014! Handing him the ball will most likely be former Alabama player Phillip Ely, who tore his ACL in the second game last season. The top two receivers return for Toledo and they will definitely help the offense continue to average over 30 points per game in 2015.
Toledo has 8 starters back on defense. Similar to the offense, there is an entire unit that needs to be replaced and that is at linebacker. The three projected starters made only 4 starts in 2014, but they will have plenty of experience around them on the defensive line and secondary. Defensive end Trent Voss was a machine last year by recording 77 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and intercepting one pass. This unit, despite the inexperience at linebacker, should help the Rockets contend in the MAC West.
Toledo has a difficult looking non-conference schedule (Stony Brook, at Arkansas, Iowa State, and Arkansas State), but could conceivably go 3-1 if they upset Iowa State and take care of Arkansas State. Toledo has a brutal ending to the regular season with a home game against Northern Illinois (Nov. 3) followed by back-to-back road games at Central Michigan (Nov. 10) and Bowling Green (Nov. 17). They end the season with Western Michigan at home on November 27. That four game stretch will ultimately decided where the Rockets finish in conference. Expect Toledo to go bowling again in 2015 and wins over Northern Illinois and Bowling Green could send them to the MAC Championship.
3. Western Michigan Broncos
The dark horse candidate in the MAC West division goes to Western Michigan. PJ Fleck is one of the up and coming coaches in the FBS and he has 16 starters returning from 2014. 9 of those starters are on offense including the MAC Freshman and MAC Offensive Player of the Year in running back JarvionFranklin. Franklin was a workhorse by accumulating 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns on 306 carries, Quarterback Zach Terrell also returns after throwing for 3,443 yards (67.9%) with 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The top 8 receivers also return for Western Michigan, which makes this unit dangerous against any defense.
The defense saw incredible improvement between year 1 and year 2 under Fleck. In 2013, the Broncos gave up 35.4 points and 419 yards per game with 7 returning starters. In 2014, those numbers were down to 24.9 points and 371 yards per game despite only five starters returning. 7 starters return for 2015 led by middle linebacker Grant DePalma. DePalma was second on the team in tackles with 102, recorded 5.5 tackles for loss, and had 2.5 sacks. There are some worries about the secondary (lost two big starters) that may hurt the Broncos on defense, but the defense should be fine overall.
The Broncos are probably staring at a 2-2 non-conference schedule with games against Michigan State, at Georgia Southern, Murray State, and at Ohio State. They have an incredibly tough conference schedule thanks to drawing Ohio (road) and Bowling Green (home) from the MAC East. They also have to play at Northern Illinois and at Toledo, which is why they are being placed behind them. It would be a surprise if the Broncos did not reach a bowl game in 2015.
4. Ball State Cardinals
Ball State has seen some success over the last decade. Brady Hoke led the Cardinals to back-to-back bowl games in 2007 and 2008 while current coach Pete Lembo did the same in 2012 and 2013. Ball State lost all four of those bowl games and are 0-7 all time in bowl games. What does 2015 have in store?
The offense returns 10 of its starters from last season. The one position they have to fill is a big one at running back. In 201, Jahwan Edwards ran for 1,252 yards and 12 touchdowns while helping out the inexperienced quarterbacks. Now it will be up to Jack Milas to help the inexperienced running back. Milas threw for 1,302 yards with 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions as a redshirt freshman. The top three receivers return, which should make this offense potent.
On defense, Ball State has 8 starters coming back including their top five tacklers from 2014. The secondary is a slight concern with two starters gone, but the front seven appears to be the strong point of the defense. Linebackers Zach Ryan and Ben Ingle were #1 and #2 in tackles respectively in 2014 and will be raking in the tackles again in 2015. There may be some issues defending the pass in 2015, but with 8 total starters back the defense should be fine.
Ball State has their non-conference schedule strewn across the season. The open with VMI and a road trip to Texas A&M before starting MAC play. Between Texas A&M on September 12 and Northern Illinois on October 10, the Cardinals have 4 road games in 5 weeks. The one lone home game during that time? Toledo. The Cardinals end the season with back-to-back games against MAC East foes Ohio (road) and Bowling Green (home). It will not be an easy task for Ball State to reach 6 wins in 2015.
5. Central Michigan Chippewas
Central Michigan had a lot going for them in 2014. They returned 18 starters and were in year five of the Dan Enos era as well as some winnable non-conference games against Chattanooga, Purdue, Syracuse, and Kansas. They ended up splitting those 4 contests and finished 7-6 overall after a crushing last second loss in the Bahamas Bowl to Western Kentucky.
Enos is now gone and John Bonamego comes in with a tough task in his first season. Only five starters return on offense, but one of them is quarterback Cooper Rush. He threw for 3,157 yards (63.6%) with 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He will not have his first and third leading receivers from 2014 to throw to and will also be missing his starting running back. The offensive line does return three starters, but they will be hard-pressed to top their 27 points per game average of 2014.
Just like the offense, the defense only returns five starters from a unit that gave up 25.2 points and 355 yards per game in 2014. The strength will be up front with three of the four starters returning from a unit that allowed only 123 yards rushing per game. The entire linebacking unit has to be replaced and only two of the starters return in the secondary. The defense will probably perform much worse in comparison to last season.
The first year under a new head coach can be difficult especially when there are not a lot of starters returning. The Chippewas will face Oklahoma State and Monmouth at home to open the season before road games at Syracuse and Michigan State. They did not draw the most difficult opponents from the MAC East with Buffalo, Akron, and Kent State making appearances on the schedule. Still, this appears to be a rebuilding season for Central Michigan.
6. Eastern Michigan Eagles
2014 was not a good year for Eastern Michigan under the first year of head coach Chris Creighton. All of their losses were by at least double digits, but the Eagles were able to win 2 games against Morgan State and Buffalo. 2015 appears to have a better team for the Eagles, but will that translate on the field?
Offensively, five starters return from a team that averaged only 15.2 points and 290 yards per game in 2014. That can only improve especially with the dynamic Reggie Bell behind center. He is a dual threat quarterback who led the team in passing (1,297 yards with 8 touchdowns and 6 interceptions) and rushing (562 yards and 4 touchdowns). He loses his top target, but does have his #2 and #3 receivers from 2014 to throw to. With a year in the system complete, the offense can only do better.
There is plenty of room for improvement on defense, but 2014 was actually better than 2013. In 2013, the Eagles gave up 45.2 points and 511 yards per game with 5 starters returning. 2014 had 4 starters return and the Eagles gave up 40.9 points and 499 yards per game. 2015 should see those numbers continue to decline with 8 starters back. The front six in this 4-2-5 system looks like it will be better with all six coming back from last season. The back five only returns two starters, but adds in a former quarterback and two upperclassmen are expected to start. The defense will not be overwhelming, but there should be continued improvement over the past two seasons.
Eastern Michigan does not have the toughest non-conference schedule with games against Old Dominion (home), Wyoming (road), Army (home), and LSU (road), but it will be tough for them to eke out even a victory. From the MAC East, they do draw Akron, Miami (OH), and Massachusetts, which could provide a victory for them. 2015 is another year of rebuilding for Eastern Michigan.
Just like the MAC East, the West appears to be a two-horse race between Toledo and Northern Illinois. Western Michigan is a dark horse in this race, but their MAC schedule is brutal. They will probably make it to a bowl game while the bottom trio of Ball State, Central Michigan, and Eastern Michigan will battle to stay out of the cellar. Below is a recap of the predicted order of finish.
1. Northern Illinois
3. Western Michigan
4. Ball State
5. Central Michigan
6. Eastern Michigan
The predicted MAC Championship will be Ohio versus Northern Illinois. Northern Illinois will be selected as the preseason pick to win the MAC Championship.
Check back on Tuesday, July 7 to see the Mountain West Conference – Mountain Division Preview.